The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!"
For the next eight days, I invite you to join me in a journey through the last week of Jesus’ life, as it is experienced through the Gospel of John. To fully hear this story, we will need to be prepared to look below its surface. If we are not careful in this way, and only read on the surface, we will experience little more than a tragic account of how a peaceful revolutionary was put to death by a group of frightened, but powerful men.
We will also need to look beyond what we might expect. We have all been conditioned to think of the stories that are told during Holy Week as stories about how God is offering up a sacrifice so that our personal sins can be forgiven. Without a doubt, forgiveness of sins – for all people – will be an important theme. However, as important as the forgiveness of sins is, what is happening here is much bigger even than forgiveness. This is a story – as today’s text tells us – about how Jesus, God’s representative, becomes King.
The story begins with a demonstration in which Jesus’ followers recognize his Kingly authority. This limited demonstration, however, is only a precursor to what is to come in human history. The prophetic words that interpret this event come from his own enemies’ lips: “Look! The whole world has gone after him!”
On Palm Sunday, we follow their advice to “look” – both backwards and forwards. Backwards, to the events in the gospels and to the tradition of the Church in celebrating this day. And forwards, to the day when – as Paul puts it – every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus’ kingly authority.
The story we hear this week will climax with the most powerful empire on Earth declaring, ironically, that Jesus is “King of the Jews,” and it will end in a poignant moment in which a skeptic proclaims Jesus to have both the political authority of the Emperor and the divine authority of God.
For many, the experience of Holy Week is about Jesus’ suffering and death, and how we should be grateful for his sacrifice. This is an important and valid experience during Holy Week. But if you are walking through this week with John, it is only part of the picture. In this gospel, we are invited from start to finish to attend a coronation in which God’s chosen King comes into power.
For reflection: How does the theme of coronation change the way you think of Holy Week? What do you expect to experience as you see this week through the eyes of John’s gospel?
[Note: The interpretation of John that you will encounter this week hardly originated with me. NT Wright and Scot McKnight have played a huge role in shaping my perspective on the "big picture" story of scripture, and I am grateful for the work they have done. Scot's book on this subject is The King Jesus Gospel. NT Wright's recent book How God Became King also addresses the subject.]